Short-term anti-racist training is not enough to counter systemic racism in Canadian education

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Over this past pandemic year, I’ve spent a lot time listening to educators from across Canada who are struggling to support their students.

As someone who has researched how administrators can better support teaching staff and teacher education and leadership, and in my role as a dean of education, and I’ve met with many teachers and educators through a weekly web series that I host.

It has become clear that the effects of the pandemic have challenged almost all students and their families. But, over the past year, there is ample evidence that supports the anecdotal evidence from my conversations and demonstrates how systemic racism affects educational opportunities and equitable outcomes for many Indigenous, Black and racialized students and their families.

Before the pandemic, a lack of access to reliable, broadband internet had already limited the opportunities for online learning for Indigenous students who live on-reserve. The pandemic has amplified that fact.

When schools stopped in-person instruction, a number of Indigenous colleagues shared with me the struggles of trying to bridge the digital divide that many First Nation communities face. A colleague in Saskatchewan whose First Nation partners with our faculty of education explained how their students had to access high-speed internet by sitting in a car in the school’s parking lot. Many similar stories were told about how teachers were negotiating and innovating around the lack of broadband.

Other educators shared stories of dealing with the challenges of the pandemic in creative ways. For example, one principal who works in a school that serves a predominantly racialized and lower-income urban population organized staff to deliver breakfast and lunch programs to students’ homes.

If we are to have any hope of creating a more equitable and racially just society, we must dismantle systemic racism by restructuring the systems like education that allow it to be perpetuated. This is a tall order but the time before us provides a reckoning that has been a long time coming.

A racial reckoning

The tragic deaths of Joyce Echaquan, Eishia Hudson, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others have catalyzed calls for leaders to do more to address systemic racism. In response, universities and school systems issued solidarity statements and committed to meaningful action.

Anti-racism resources are being ushered into place. This is a good start but these initial actions should not be mistaken for the hard work that is required to dismantle the structures that uphold racism.

Before we can have anti-racist classrooms and a more equitable education system, teacher preparation programs need to face a reckoning. Canadian universities need to move beyond the comforting rhetoric of equity, diversity and inclusion and confront and change the values, structures and behaviours that perpetuate systemic racism within them.

But we will only make headway if those with power in education first understand how systemic racism is enmeshed in organizational structures, policies and practices and how these helped them both succeed in school and their careers.